Ugh. It’s THAT time of year again – the “Hap, Happiest Season of All.” Unless, of course, you’re grieving the loss of your child. There are painful reminders every single day of what has been lost, but the avalanche of Christmas cards sent by well-meaning family, friends, acquaintances, strangers, and random businesses you’ve frequented take the knife that is in your heart and give it a hard twist. Believe me – I know the intent of every card sender – I’ve sent my fair share of cards through the years – so I am certain that no one ever MEANS to wound or cause pain. But on behalf of grieving parents (and others), let me give you a few words of advice: please, please, please be sensitive and look at your card through the eyes of the person on the receiving end.
Christmas 2013 was our first Christmas without Matthew – I could barely breathe or hold it together in the grocery store, let alone the mall. So I stayed away. The internet became my friend as I shopped late at night in front of a screen without the repetitive sentimental mall music stirring up memories of Christmases past... Christmases where all three of my children were alive. I avoided people, places, and events that were sure to intensify my pain.
But the cards came uninvited into my mailbox every day. I hadn’t thought about the cards – hadn’t pegged them as emotional triggers ahead of time, and so when I opened the first batch, a wave of shock washed over me. Photo cards of beautiful, happy, INTACT families cascaded onto my kitchen table, most with a printed greeting wishing me a “Joyous Christmas.” Some had a scribbled handwritten signature and the words ”Hope you have a great Christmas.” Some sent their standard family newsletter, full of all the accomplishments, fabulous vacations, delightful family moments, etc that had filled the past year for them. What I quickly realized in astonishment and then anger was that none mentioned our grief... no one seemed aware that our precious Matthew had died violently six months earlier leaving us definitely NOT having a joyous or great Christmas. And then I opened a card that said, “I can’t imagine how difficult this first Christmas without Matthew is going to be for your family; you are in my prayers.” I forgave the other overly cheerful parts of her card because at least she had the sensitivity and kindness to acknowledge our loss and to let us know we were being remembered in prayers.
I thought that perhaps this first batch of cards were atypical – that surely, most people would be like the kind friend and say SOMETHING that let us know they were aware of how excruciatingly painful Christmas was going to be – but that isn’t what happened. Each day, another batch of cards arrived with the vast majority giving no thought to the stabbing pain their lack of sensitivity was causing. It didn’t take long before plucking the mail out of the mailbox became a task I left to Rick – and the cards remained unopened in the traditional iron sleigh that has cradled our cherished Christmas cards through the years until after Christmas was past. When I finally opened them up weeks later, I tore through them with angry tears pouring down my cheeks as I separated them into three piles: ones that didn’t mention our grief at all, ones that said a quick “Praying for you” and ones that contained soothing, comforting, loving, thoughtful words of compassion and empathy. The third stack was the smallest.
I thought that maybe I was just overly sensitive last year – so immersed in the freshness of our loss that everything was like scraping a raw, open wound. I hoped this year I’d feel differently. But I opened the first Christmas card a few days ago – a one-sided, artistically designed card on heavy paper stock... with a printed signature from a pastor I don’t even know. I threw it away.
What I’m trying to convey is this: please THINK about the recipient before you send a greeting card this year. If you’ve taken the obligatory picture of the “happy family,” consider sending instead a plain card to a grieving family – one that doesn’t smack them in the face with a reminder of how life used to be for them. Tell them in a few words that you are aware of how painful Christmas can be and that you are praying for them – tell them you love them and that you are with them in shared sorrow. Yes, it’s inconvenient – it will take more time than your rushed signature, and it will require entering into someone else’s loss, mourning, grief, and anger at a time when the world pretends that all our “troubles will be out of sight.”
Christmas may always have a sting... I don’t know. My friend whose little girl was murdered two years ago in December says Christmas will never be the same. This is only my second Christmas without Matthew. What I do know is I miss my son. He loved Christmas. And I love him.
So, on behalf of grieving parents everywhere, if you aren’t willing to modify your way of sending cards for a while, please do us a favor and take us off your list.